Long before the current trade spat between Justin Trudeau and President Trump, a striking photograph seemed to foreshadow a troubled relationship.
Seated in those two famous chairs in the Oval Office, Trump and Trudeau are angled toward each other. Trump extends his hand to Trudeau for a shake; the prime minister glances down at it with a look of deep apprehension, his own hands folded tightly in his lap. The picture went viral and was widely used by the press to illustrate the inaugural summit of the mismatched leaders, the hero of enlightened progressivism meets his most odious opposite. Buzzfeed did a whole essay on the saltiest Twitter reactions — “Today we are all Justin Trudeau,” etc.
It was all very dishonest. Video of the Oval Office encounter shows Trudeau returning Trump’s handshake instantaneously. The damning photo was surgically extracted from the split second in which the Trump’s hand extended just before Trudeau’s rose to meet it — a moment present in every handshake that has ever occurred. The summit itself went quite well.
On June 12, Getty Images photographer John Moore accompanied the U.S. Border Patrol to the bank of the Rio Grande on the American side of the American–Mexican border. Eager for a photo that, by his own admission, “conveyed the emotional impact of family separations” now dominating America’s immigration debate, he snapped a photograph of a Honduran toddler crying as her out-of-frame migrant mother was patted down by border agents. As the Washington Post would summarize in their recount of Moore’s adventure, “the girl’s despair was so complete in those few seconds,” and the photo accordingly caught fire around the world.
Yet the image of “those few seconds” did not depict what many seemed eager to assume it did: a child stranded as her mother was carted away by jack-booted thugs. Subsequent reporting revealed that mother and daughter, though detained in Texas, remain very much united.
Even if the truth of the toddler’s situation had been known from the start, I’m not convinced the media storyline would have differed. As Time put it in justifying their decision to run an image of the crying girl on their latest cover, Moore’s photo was a “symbol” that was useful to them in its own right, just as the Trudeau photo was useful to an earlier gaggle of journalists. Time confirmed what’s been long known: For both producers and consumers, news photographs today often function more as editorial illustration than factual documentation.
The visuals didn’t report, they offered commentary. They provided politicized art, not neutral data.
That photo of President Trump dumping an entire box of fish food into the Japanese koi pond was useful to many as an illustration of the president’s boorishness simply because he looked like a boor doing it. The photo of a hunched Angela Merkel glowering at Trump over the G-7 conference table was a powerful representation of the so-called G-6-against-1 divide. The decision of Talking Points Memo to run a photo of Laura Ingraham, taken during the 2016 Republican National Convention, in something resembling a Nazi salute to accompany coverage of her recent “summer camps” comment (about holding facilities) reflected how the TPM readership perceives Ingraham.
None of these photos were honest; all were either taken or presented out of context to maximize their editorial impact. The visuals didn’t report, they offered commentary. They provided politicized art, not neutral data.
It’s easy to blame social media and political polarization for using deceptive photographs to make editorial statements more common and pernicious, but I fear the roots may be culturally deeper.
As an artist myself, I often worry about the declining public appreciation for the use of traditional illustration in journalism and commentary. Most legacy news outlets still occasionally commission talented painters, cartoonists, caricaturists, graphic designers, and visual artists of other sorts to supplement articles with compelling artwork emphasizing the author’s agenda. But how much of this labor is breezed past as superfluous decoration and quickly forgotten?
On June 22, the Washington Post ran a fine illustration by John W. Tomac accompanying a column on the migrant crisis. It depicts tiny hands clutching a chain-link fence as President Trump’s ominous shadow looms over. For those inclined toward a particular interpretation of the border situation, Tomac’s drawing was every bit as powerful as the crying girl photo, and frankly, more ethical in its creativity. Yet did you see anyone share it? When’s the last time you’ve seen any illustration go viral?
Our collective bias for the cheap literalism of photography does not reflect well on the imagination of our age. We have become a people increasingly illiterate about the necessary role of art in political conversation. Instead of a well-crafted drawing that uses stylization and metaphor to summarize a situation, we demand bluntly affecting photographs of emoting humans and allow ourselves to be manipulated by their dishonesties and limitations.
The new cover of Time surely represents a nadir of this trend. Only rarely these days does the magazine run the richly illustrated covers it was once known for. Today, we are given a crude collage of two unrelated photographs — a standing Trump and the crying toddler — in an awkward attempt to visually encapsulate the national mood stirred by the president’s approach to immigration. What they have actually produced is scandal for themselves, the further politicization of a family’s private plight, the spread of misinformation, and the degradation of the media’s reputation at a time when it has never been lower.
Next time, just get someone to draw something.